'Clean 15' and 'Dirty Dozen' categories for fresh produce

Ray Mueller

CHILTON - Among its other activities, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which describes itself as an independent watchdog and educational organization, publishes an annual listing of a “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” for fresh produce.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), which describes itself as an independent watchdog and educational organization, publishes an annual listing of a “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” for fresh produce.

The order of foods in that listing doesn't change much from year to year. The rankings of 50 items are based on the amount of pesticides found on the foods at the time they're available to consumers.

That's one reason for the recommendations to wash fresh foods before consuming them. It's also the basis of the calls to “buy local” from a farmer “that you know and can trust.”

Clean 15 Group

For 2016, the EWG's “Clean 15” had avocados at the top of its list as the most pesticide free fresh produce. They were followed by sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, and frozen sweet peas.

In the 2nd group of five are onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, and kiwis. Completing that group of 15 are eggplant, honeydew melons, grapefruit, cantaloupe, and cauliflower.

To push that portion of the list to 25 would also include mushrooms, sweet potatoes, broccoli, watermelon, oranges, bananas, green onions, snap peas (domestic), summer squash, and tangerines.

The Dirty Dozen

For the EWG listing, strawberries are at the top of the “Dirty Dozen” category. They are followed by apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, and grapes. Making up the 2nd half of that list are cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet red peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers.

A bit lower on the list are imported snap peas, blueberries (domestic), potatoes, hot peppers, lettuce, kale, collard greens, blueberries (imported), green beans, plums, and pears. Getting to number 25 also includes raspberries, carrots, and winter squash. At that point, the list converges with the fresh produce items numbered from the opposite direction – the extension of the Clean 15.

The question I have is how many people consult the EWG's listings and how many are guided by them when buying fresh produce.

I don't know how many other research resources the EWG has but I would be interested in similar listings on processed and preserved foods. Unfortunately, they probably account for a greater portion of food consumption than fresh produce.

EWG's reputation

The EWG doesn't have a good reputation with the agriculture and food processing sectors. Trade groups representing the various fresh produce items are unified in questioning the accuracy of the listings and whether there ought to be much, if any, worry about what those organizations say about their products, which they describe as the safest and cheapest food in the world.

In exchanges with Alliance for Food and commodity groups, the EWG acknowledges that virtually all of the fresh produce items it tests and rates meet legal requirements in the United States. But it contends that being legal does not necessarily mean that “legal is always safe” and argues that current rules “don't protect people's health.”

The EWG points out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly three quarters of the fresh produce samples it analyzed in 2014 (the most recent available data) contained at least one pesticide. In its testing, the EWG uses six different measures of contamination to come up with its rating for each fresh produce item.

As a bottom line, the EWG urges people to eat more fruits, vegetables, and nuts as a way to improve their health. Based on its pesticide testing, it advises them to buy organic items when they are available because pesticides, except for some natural ones, are not permitted in organic production.

To some farmers, EWG is a pest itself because it compiles and publishes (online) the amount of payments that every farmer recipient is paid through various federal crop support and conservation programs.